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DINING OUT The World of Annie Wong

With Liberty, Dallas’ Thai pioneer reinvents the Asian noodle house.
By Mary Brown Malouf |

I RECENTLY RECEIVED THE USUAL PRE-opening press release for another new restaurant. The place is a “new concept,” the release said. The location is convenient; the decor is innovative. In addition to the publicist’s name and number, the release listed the CEO of the restaurant. It listed the COO. It listed the manager. What was missing? I read again through the copy to see if I’d overlooked something, but I hadn’t. The owners had. Nowhere was there a mention of a chef.

It used to be that a restaurant began with the chef, someone who had apprenticed long and trained hard, someone whose passion for the kitchen was never going to be satisfied until the customers were eating his creations. The chef animated the restaurant, was the soul of the restaurant. Now a restaurant starts with a concept. And very often it ends there, too.

Liberty, a new restaurant on Lower Greenville, is a little different. Owner Jeffrey Yarbrough’s a young go-getter. He’s got a business consultant and everything. He can talk the marketing talk. And Yarbrough did have a concept. He’d shopped hard for it. Owner or’ Art Bar, Red. Club Clearview, and Blind Lemon in Deep Ellum, Yarbrough wanted a new restaurant, and he went shopping for one. Over the course of five months, he traveled all over the country, visiting Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago, interviewing chefs and eating in restaurants- sometimes 30 restaurants a day-in search of a concept he liked. Yarbrough returned with his idea, a simple one: “In all the ethnic communities, there were noodle houses, but they hadn’t ’crossed over.’ It hadn’t been elevated to a dining experience with beer and wine,” he says. He ran the notion by his business coach (that’s what he calls his business consultant) who approved, and the concept was locked: a pan-Asian noodle house.

Yarbrough already had the location. He’d bought a little pub off Lower Greenville years ago. He (and his coach) thought it was going to pan out someday; they just didn’t know with what.

Yarbrough first thought of calling the new place Noodle Monkey but decided on Liberty-it relates to the politics of Asia, he says, but it also has “a nice ring to it.” So he had the concept, the location, even a name-but there was still something missing. His business “coach,” earning his fees, suggested he meet Annie Wong.

“Annie Wong” is a magic name to most Dallas chefs. As the mother of Thai food in Dallas, she’s got disciples. Hers was not the first Thai restaurant in town, but she’s the one whose restaurant, Thai Lanna, became a gourmet destination. She’s at the root of the elaborate family tree of Thai restaurants here, which are all somehow related. Wong says she’s trained at least one person in every Dal las Thai restaurant.

She still owns three all-Thai restaurants: Thai Hut, Thai Taste, and Thai Cuisine. The Thai population of Dallas has put Wong on a pedestal, and when she opened her last restaurant, the chefs and ladies in the Thai community brought her gifts of food they’d cooked at home. She’s in her 60s now, and after decades in the United States, she still isn’t completely confident in her English. When we meet at the new restaurant, she brings her close friend. Dr. Paul Wong, as an interpreter. A large, wide-smiling woman with big glasses and black hair piled on her head, she’s dressed fashionably in a leopard-skin scarf and earrings that seem suited to her exotic looks.

Through Paul, Wong tells me her other restaurants serve traditional Thai food, and because she’s trained her staff, those restaurants run themselves. So Liberty is where her imagination is freed. She’s a gourmet at heart. She loves tocook French, Italian, and especially Mexican food. Liberty is a variation on the ideas behind Krisda’s, the restaurant she opened in 1989 (later changing its name to Thai Taste). It was a forerunner of fusion and combined Southwestern and Thai food before its time. Gastronomically speaking, Wong’s still evolving. Liberty is more than just another Thai restaurant because Wong likes to push her limits. She’s a continental chef from another continent.

THE RESTAURANT, DESIGNED BY DAVID Nelson is romantically and softly lit. with beaded candleshades on each table and bamboo birdcages animated with twinkling Christmas lights. Upside-down woks serve as chandeliers over the bar designed for singles-friendly dining. The brightly lit kitchen makes Liberty into real dinner theater-your eyes are irresistibly drawn toward the lights and the action. This is a true open kitchen-you can see everything but the dishwashing.

On a recent Friday night before the reviews had come out. Wong arrives on stage, wearing a chambray shirt and leggings and a black chenille hat that shades her face like a sunbonnet. In the kitchen. she takes on an efficient aspect. She supervises three day cooks, four at night. The entire staff eats with Wong, the master, every night so she can teach them about her food and how to sell it. During the evening, she positions herself next to the woks like a coach, From this vantage point she can watch every move of the line. A slosh of oil coats the sloping sides of one wok, then in goes the chopped garlic, which browns quickly, a dipper of broth which boils for an instant and then calms before the strips of pink beef are slid in gently. Finally, in go the noodles. Then the wok is emptied, sloshed with water, and cleaned for the next dish.

It’s an ancient cooking method, as prescribed as the French mother sauces. What makes Wong’s food dif-ferent is what makes any chef’s food special: imagination. Her palate can deconstruct the flavors in a dish, and she reproduces tastes instinctively.

Mostly, the menu at Liberty is centered around noodles, from First Dish, which features the dumpling of the day, to a selection of sticky rices for dessert. Our steamed dumplings were little kisses of noodle, puckered to hold shrimp and pork, and topped with crunchy, bold bits of chopped fried garlic. The fried ones are melting-crisp turnovers, filled with succulent vegetable and meat.

Big Soup, the second section of the menu, is served in giant bowls holding more than a pint. A giant nest of soft egg noodles is coiled in the bottom of the salted wok-seared beef soup. The broth is clear and strong, and bits of bok choy, spring onion, and cilantro leaves float in il like seaweed. The spicy coconut chicken broth is milky, strengthened with coconut milk. Sticks of tart lemon grass scent it, and there are shreds of fresh pineapple and chicken to counter tart and tooth. Pad Thai is similarly deconstructed and put back together in a bigger, bolder way- with giant shrimp and snowy noodles.

THE FILM TAMPOPO IS THE STORY OF A JAPanese widow who wants to learn how to cook noodles, so she adopts a Japanese cowboy mentor to teach her. There’s a scene of an old man and a young man eating noodles side by side.

“Do you eat the broth first or the noodles first?” the young man asks the master, The master sits quietly, contemplating his bowl. “’First.” he says, “observe the whole bowl. Appreciate its gestalt. Savor the aromas. Caress the surface with the chopstick tips. What for? To express affection. Then poke the pork. Gently pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl. Finally, start eating the noodles. While slurping the noodles, look at the pork. Eye it affectionately. It’s the soup that’s the soul of the noodles,” says the master to the novice noodle-eater.

Yarbrough had the vision. Wong’s got the soul. The broth is the soul of the noodle. Wong is the soul of Liberty.

LIBERTY, <I>5631 Aim, 214-887-8795. $$.

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